No Thanks, Lysistrata

What’s a good feminist to do? I have been told, repeatedly, that social issues that disproportionately affect women—birth control, abortion, violence against women—give me only one choice between the parties. Therefore, my only option is to hold my nose and vote for Democrats—no matter how far-right leaning they may be, because, the argument goes, party discipline will make sure that those Democrats vote with the party when these issues come up.

And so, here we are. The Tea Party-controlled House of Representatives, supposedly elected on a platform of reducing the national debt, has instead gone after Planned Parenthood, abortion rights, and even NPR. Can I trust the Democrats to do the right thing?


Despite his promise to close Gitmo, President Obama has now declared that not only will it stay open, but the men locked up within will be tried by military tribunal. We are now fighting another war (or invasion, incursion, police action, or intervention—whatever the new term is for dropping bombs) in Libya. The Ivory Coast is burning. Women continue to be raped as war trophies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And the beat goes on.

I went out for drinks with friends, and someone mentioned Lysistrata, the Greek play by Aristophones that suggest women use the one true weapon we have in our quivers. That is: we cut men off.

Leaving aside for the moment the issues of how to incorporate the desires of lesbian women and gay men into the equation, does anyone believe that stopping all sexual activity until men vote our way would make a difference?

Excuse the pun, but FUCK NO.

In principle, choosing not to have heterosexual sex as a protest against policies that restrict women’s abilities to have autonomy over their bodies seems the ultimate in women’s power. It did, to some extent, work in the case of Liberia, where the brave women there forced their men to continue negotiating for peace by sitting naked outside the building where the negotiations were taking place.

But these sanctions wouldn’t work for me. One obvious reason is that I like sex too much to give it up. I almost feel as if I have to defend that statement. I am willing to make some sacrifices if I believe they’re for a greater good; after all, I’ve had no problem boycotting products that I actually kind of miss having access to. And if someone were to tell me that if all women were to suddenly decide to deny men access to sex would guarantee that the abortion debate would come to a screeching end, I could be called selfish for my refusal to participate. But I still wouldn’t do it.

I am uncomfortable with a number of aspects of a “no sex until we’re free” campaign. For one thing, it feels as if it affirms, in a backwards way, the goal of the right-wing, theocratic, body-hating, misogynistic asses who are passing the restrictions on abortion. As I have said many, many times before, the anti-abortionists are anti-woman and anti-sex.

The evidence is overwhelming: not only do they oppose abortion, but they also oppose sex education in the schools, emergency contraception, and the rights of gays to marry and adopt.  Plus, they lie about the effectiveness of condoms in AIDS prevention. In essence, they don’t want women to have access to medical care, but they also don’t want men and women to have access to sexual pleasure that doesn’t take place within a state-sanctioned, God-sanctified, heterosexual marriage.

So, why should I give them what they want? I stop having sex in protest of their anti-sex policies? I don’t think so.

Secondly, I’m really uncomfortable with the implications of giving up sex in order to make a point. It seems to me that denying men access to women’s bodies in an effort to have them get on board with the right to privacy reinstantiates, or confirms, some sort of notion that it’s men who want sex and women who accede to those demands. It reconfirms the notion that women are not active sexual agents, that we are the receptors, not the instigators of sexual contact. And, quite frankly, that bothers me a lot.

Look, I’m not saying that women do not have the right to choose whether or not to have sex. I know women who don’t enjoy sex for whatever reasons, and who have decided to opt out of sexual contact with men (and women, too). Of course, I support their choice to not have sex.

But I do not want to contribute to a discourse that sees sex as a weapon that women use as a method of getting what they want from men—be it diamonds, marriage, or abortion rights. If I choose to have sex, it’s on my terms. Not as some sort of negotiation. Not because I know he wants it and I’ve got what he wants. I have sex because I want to, because it feels good, because it affirms the pair-bond, because I can.

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  • johann7

    I’m not sure I see the options here as a binary choice between not having any partnered sex with any men or not using sex as a political tool. Don’t you have the option to not have sex with misogynists, war-mongers, torture-advocates, suspenders-of-habius-corpus, etc. but continue to have sex with men who aren’t those things? Are you suggesting that political ideology or one’s opinions on public policy are not valid factors in selecting a sex partner?


    My understanding of Lysistrata was that the whole point was that the women were refusing to have sex with their husbands who were actually the ones refusing to stop fighting and negotiate peace. I always framed it as, “Hey, you’re being a war-mongering asshole, and I’m not interested in fucking war-mongering assholes.” That seems appropriate, and vastly different from refusing to have sex with any/all men, whether they support the same kinds of political/policy positions as oneself or not., until some end is achieved over which the men in question (or some of them) may not have any control (that’s basically the radical lesbian separatist position from the seventies, which I think provides some useful insights but is ultimately not an effective course in practice). In fact, I tend to think that, “Don’t have sex with misogynists,” is a very good idea; I practice this myself by not having sex with anti-feminist women.


    The entire idea of women using sex to get what they want from men is based on the ideas that 1) men but not women have sexual desire and 2) men have an assumed position of sexual access to women. If you don’t subscribe to those ideas, such a framing ceases to be at all coherent. Sure, sex-negative and anti-woman political grups might frame your actions that way, but they’re going to frame your actions in a derogatory, marginalizing way no matter what you do: that’s their whole deal (e.g. slut/prude double standard – women literally cannot win, and that’s the point). Anyway, I take your point that you’re not going to stop having sex because you like sex, and that’s just dandy. I think, however, that your framing for this piece might be an oversimplification that erects a false binary: one can both continue to have sex with men and still consider the political implications/impacts of the contexts in which you choose to have sex, including whether to use contraceptives and STI barriers; in what kinds of sexual practices to engage; under what interpersonal, emotional, locational, economic, etc. circumstances to engage in sexual activity; and any other contextual considerations with which I’m not coming up off the top of my head (making choices at least in part on the basis of those impacts).


    Your sex life is ultimately yours to control and there’s no particular reason you should care what I think (obviously), but sex and our choices in sexual partners are political actions, whether we’re consciously evlauating the impacts or not (and whether we want them to be or not).